Interview: Risks and protection of a human rights lawyer and defender in Colombia, Jorge Eliecer Molano Rodríguez
Interview by Gemma Sunyer*
14 September 2015
Jorge is a well established Colombian human rights defender and lawyer. He travelled around Europe during the summer of 2015 in order to raise awareness of human rights and justice (or the lack of it) in Colombia and to collect the 2015 award from Lawyers for Lawyers for his remarkable work and courage. During his short visit to London, which was hosted by the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers’ Group and Peace Brigades International UK (PBI), Jorge gave a talk at the Law Society on transitional justice in Colombia and spoke to MPs, the Foreign Office, NGOs working on Colombia and interested members of public. He also spoke to Gemma Sunyer, a LLM graduate from the Centre forApplied Human Rights, University of York. about the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia. This is what he said,
‘threats and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia are not isolated events targeted against specific individuals, they are a generalised practice that affect a wide range of defenders’.
The Colombian System of Information of Aggressions against Human Rights Defenders (in Spanish SIADDHH), part of the 'We are Defenders Program' (Programa Somos Defensores) registered 626 attacks during 2014, which was an increase of 71% compared to 2013. During the first six months of 2015, more than 399 attacks were recorded, an increase of 105% compared to the figures registered during the first semester of 2014. According to Jorge, this increase derives from two factors. The first one is that they are designed to destabilise the peace talks that started in 2012 between the government and FARC-ELN in La Havana. The second one is that there would be regional elections in October that year, a context in which attacks tend to increase, especially in small and isolated municipalities.
When asking about who the perpetrators of these threats and attacks are, Jorge has one clear answer, the state. In his opinion, the state, the paramilitary and the illegal criminal groups called BACRIM are part of the same system. According to Jorge, the state believes that lawyers who work in human rights are undertaking a ‘legal war’ against the state. Therefore, state agents attack the work of human rights lawyers. One example of how the state attacks lawyers would be by saying that they are helping illegal criminal groups and the only thing they want is to make money. Another example would be to file trumped-up charges against them that prevent them from focusing on their work and may end in imprisonment.
Jorge believes that the state maintains a double discourse regarding human rights defenders. Public stigmatization by state officials has decreased but seeing them as enemies still perseveres in the Ministry of Defence and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. President Santos publicly apologised for the massacre committed in the peace community of San Vicente de Apartadó in March 2005. Nevertheless, within the army, there still exist intelligence reports and manuals that stigmatize human rights defenders and portray them as ‘enemies’. The change of president from Uribe to Santos meant a decrease in public stigmatization but it still remains unclear if this is due to a real change of attitude or to a simple change of image. Jorge does not see the government as transparent. He feels that if there was a real will to change attitude, the President would forbid all stigmatization processes and recognize the importance of HRDs’ work. However, the Colombian government’s Human Rights Department at the Ministry of the Interior refuses to recognise the work of HRDs. The reason they give for this is that public acknowledgment would increase the risks HRDs face. Jorge describes this as ‘the maximum expression of cynicism’.
Jorge was indirectly granted 'Precautionary measures' as a result of working for Corporation Sembrar, who in turn received the measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, due to the severe risk they were exposed to by representing victims in some high profile cases. These precautionary measures would have to be fulfilled at the domestic level. After it was uncovered that the Colombian state intelligence services known as DAS, had illegally spied on human rights defenders, Jorge and a number of other defenders handed back their protection schemes in 2011 in the belief that the state had no real will to protect them. This is a dichotomy that is often repeated as the state, often alleged to be the perpetrator of human rights violations, is also responsible for protecting those at risk. After the DAS was disbanded, the defenders accepted the measures again. The national protection measures may consist of assigning one or more armed bodyguards or a driver they trust to constantly follow them and so these measures may be perceived by some as more dangerous than having no protection at all.
PBI has been accompanying Jorge since 2009. This NGO was established in Colombia in 1994 and protects human rights defenders by assigning them an international observer who accompanies them. The presence of the unarmed volunteer and the international PBI network acts as protection for the accompanied person, providing visibility and demonstrating the concern of the international community.
I asked Jorge some questions related to my research dissertation at the University of York, which was concerned with whether or not self-identifying as a human rights defender helps or hinders defenders’ work in Colombia. Jorge identifies himself as a human rights lawyer and defender. He recognises that this provides him with an additional layer of protection because the term is recognised and defenders are supported by international protection mechanisms, such as the Inter-American System of Human Rights or the Office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota. He finds that this is especially important when dealing with state authorities, in particular when they are restricting his professional activities. ‘Identifying myself as a human rights defender provides me with a coverage that helps me carry out my work at the national level’.
Moreover, Jorge also sees that the very fact of being a human rights defender makes him part of a community, as well as granting him the opportunity to approach various bodies on specific protection for defenders. This gives him a peace of mind he would not have if he was solely identified as a lawyer. Being seen as just a lawyer is also more isolating and therefore poses greater risk.
Nevertheless, Jorge points out that the further human rights lawyers and defenders live from big cities, the lesser the protection and greater the isolation they experience. This translates into an increase in risk. Living in a big city such as Bogota, allows him to have a wider protection entourage and range of action. Visibility can also provide protection, although this is relative as many high-profile human rights lawyers and defenders have been killed and attacked, including Jorge’s mentor, noted human rights lawyer Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, who was killed in 1998.
Jorge also mentioned that the political impact of killing a defender is greater than killing a lawyer who is not a defender, because of the existing international protection networks. This is another way of improving the protection of defenders, since there is more likely to be a political response from the international community.
Jorge recognises that Colombian society has a restricted view of what a human rights defender is and that they associate the term with people who are linked to NGOs. For example, people from the social movements might not perceive themselves as human rights defenders and instead identify with labels such as trade unionists, land rights defenders or indigenous leaders. So in Colombia, a defender has not been defined by the kind of work they do but by who they work for.
Even though threats and attacks are widespread against human rights defenders in Colombia, Jorge Molano believes that identifying yourself as a defender has more advantages than disadvantages, because it provides an extra layer of protection showing the support of the international community and a higher political impact, providing visibility and access to national and international bodies, and being a part of a wider community of defenders. Although it is important to note that Jorge works from Bogota, where there is a different dynamic than in remote areas of the country where calling yourself a human rights defender could be seen as much riskier.
* Gemma Sunyer studied on the LLM in International Human RIghts Law and Practice in 2014/15.
 Programa Somos Defensores, ‘The Divine Comedy: Annual report 2014’ (original title: La Divina Comedia: Informe Annual 2014), (Programa no Gubernamental de Proteccion 2015) 46, last accessed on 16 June 2015 <http://www.somosdefensores.org/attachments/article/132/la-divina-comedia-web-final.pdf>
 Programa Somos Defensores, ‘The Nobodies: Report from January to July 2015’ (original title: Los Nadie: Informe enero-junio 2015) (Programa No Gubernamental de Proteccion 2015) 42 and 54, last accessed on 30 August 2015 <http://www.somosdefensores.org/attachments/article/134/los-nadie-informe-semestral-siaddhh2015.pdf>
 With thanks to Joanne Hutchinson, from the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers’ Group, for your very constructive comments and for facilitating this interview.